Tinderbox Forum

Why the explosion of PKM or TFT apps

  • Tinderbox along with Tiddlywiki is probably the granddaddy of PKM (Personal Knowledge Management Apps) also alternatively referred as TFT (Tools for thoughts) apps.
  • Do you guys have any idea why this space has exploded in 2020/21?.
    *(Particular trigger I feel was the arrogance of the founder of Roam Research who thought he was the only game in town. (Pardon the phrase)
  • Would love to hear your opinions and insights since I find some deep articulators here.

I categorised this in Inter-app work flows since I couldn’t find a general category. :slight_smile:

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It’s been a fairly populous space for some time, both in the laboratory and in commerce. Early commercial entries included Agenda, More, Frontier, and (of course) NLS/Augment.

I do think that Roam did a good job of publicizing itself. Notion did, too — did you see their venture funding?

The first wave of “knowledge management” tools had the bad fortune to be marketed into the teeth of the stagnation economy of the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s. In the U.S., the term became associated with efforts to deskill office work and to downsize staffing, and as a result the term became toxic for some time.


A perfect storm of reasons, I think, not necessarily in order of importance, and hardly exhaustive:

  1. Looking at and experimenting with new apps (LANA for short) is totally fun.
  2. WAY more fun, usually, than doing the work you are thinking might be done with said new app.
  3. LANA is emminently rationalizable as potentially productivity enhancing. In other words easily countable as work without feeling (at all) like work.
  4. Linking and backlinking, while being, as often noted, hardly new, has lately had a vastly increased profile in the PKM space, both a cause and effect of which is the addition of another power set of of possible cool ways that you might skin the cat of personal information management system, which increases the fun.
  5. The increase of remote and independent contractor work has freed people up from methods baked in by more traditional database or proprietary applications, and COVID has over the last many months perhaps given people more time to explore.
  6. The two for one facilitation of demonstration/ documentation and of marketing by U-Tube. Not to mention the “you might also be interested in” effect of said platform.

I agree.

But, to be fair, there really is a need for linking — and for improving our abilities! I do think you’re right that the pandemic has led a lot of people both top undertake big new projects and also to reconsider how they approach their work.


Hi @Ejspark ,

I think LANA (including #1, #2 and #6) is not specific to the PKM apps.
#4 covers a very interesting aspect. What value has the term “personal” in PKM apps? Is knowledge management really teamwork? I don’t think so. It is a personal task most of the time. Links provide a way to structure my knowledge as long as the user interface of the PKM app covers this visually complex task.

Tag clouds or graphs (like in Roam) may look attractive (from a marketing perspective) but they offer no benefit for the UI of the app. That knowledge is organised associatively doesn’t implicate a common structure for more then one user - the opposite is true (for me).

Are those graphs giving me any information:

No - they just look fancy (kind of). It’s all about marketing.

Instead of heading after “bi-directional” links I go for agents in TBX. I don’t know today what structure I need tomorrow. So I need to redefine my structure dynamically and a link structure build with what I know now will not help in the future.
Using tags, attributes and agents in TBX to define a new structural view whenever a new project starts is much more powerful for me than those hard to read linked documents in Roam. Just my personal taste.


I call it “spaghetti linking”. With a few notes or at least a relatively low density, hierarchical set of notes, bidirectional wiki style linking can work. But if you densely link working notes, you get this kind of useless mess.

But that’s not what Luhmann did with his cards. He was trying to create higher level, synthetic summaries from evidence and observation. These days my summaries are bullet note lists that let me see ideas in summary. Those notes become new observations eventually. I think the idea is to link mindfully.


Yeah… LANA is def not specific to PKM apps, but my sense is that PKM apps somehow induce/produce more LANA than others. Part of this is just the greater catchment area they have – anyone who might LANA database OR word processing OR spreadsheet OR Graphic OR Outliner OR Task Manager OR… you name it, anyone likely to LANA any one or several of these categories will be even more likely do so with PKM – because PKM’s often include aspects/features of any of the other above programs and because people have not uncommonly tried to use/adapt these other types of apps as PKMs.
Eg: David Sparks wrote not long ago about using Omni Graffle to create a personal dashboard… Thinking back, I remember that before I ever even heard of PKM per se I used to think that if I really sat down and thought and read about it, I could run my whole life from Excel or Access…
Because PKM is indeed personal, individual it seems to more frequently become a Grail than does, say, the ideal word processor, etc, etc… So, yes, I def agree also that there is a real need for, eg, linking, but my hunch is that that real need for it may be outstripped by the open interest in it, the delta being explained by some of the factors we’ve been talking about… We can be drawn, I think, by sheer permutation… I know I can :wink: All the sophisticated marketing lands on fertile soil…


There’s over-veneration of process and the ‘underpants gnomes business plan’ (South Park (qv)) is very popular, especially amongst coders wanting a web-based play:

  • Steal all Kyle’s underpants (IOW the ‘collect all the stuff’ phase)
  • something not yet defined (could be AI, blockchain (very on-trend right now), ML, etc.)
  • Success & Riches. (job done with no real effort or thought expended)

It’s beyond irony that this business plan gets taught about in mainstream business school. I fear they may not fully realise that it is satire.

Of couse, PKN is catnip for the above: it involves collecting big buckets of stuff! That graph not good enough? We can do different graph, and in colour! We offer unlimited buckets! AI not working as expected? Try more tags, addd more data, and wait for the next version: we’re super-stoked about our next kick-ass algorithm is going to solve everything (coming as soon as we close the next funding round, i.e. possibly not/never). Try a truly 21C zettelkasten experience! And, did we mention we use blockchain, because that improves everything. etc…

The value isn’t in the flashiness of the UI, the speed of filling buckets with data, or whether the buckets are local or in the cloud. The sense-making comes from the human thought going into what we collect, link and why. Once that human input gets relegated to bucket-filling then the value falls away.

I’m sure others will take a different stance. This issue is less App A vs. App B than what is actually achieved. Over the years I’ve learned to start to worry is if the data looks too good or organised. That generally means Im over-fitting things (to avoid messy edges) or fiddling with visual elements than impart no or no extra insight but simply look pleasing to the eye.


The value isn’t in the flashiness of the UI, the speed of filling buckets with data, or whether the buckets are local or in the cloud. The sense-making comes from the human thought going into what we collect, link and why.

Couldn’t agree more. Too many people see the ‘flashiness’ as the raison d’être of the application. The app is only a tool to facilitate the thinking and sense-making processes. Tinderbox is a superb tool for that, but it still needs a human mind to make the sense.


This is also why people LANA. If you don’t know what structure you need, but the one you have isn’t working, it’s easy to think that the solution might be a new tool. Especially one that promises (falsely) to organize everything for you.

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Amen. It’s easy to laugh, but we merely laugh at ourselves. After 17-odd years helping support this community, I’m increasingly of the view there isn’t an easy solution (NO: not AI, not blockchain, not [meme]). Indeed, if it seems easy, we’re just low-balling the problem.

But easily missed in this weeks meet-up Mark Bernstein note’s is this observation (video at time c.58:26) where he say’s “Community makes this practical”. The point is not individual (lest I appear to point to own involvement). The point is far deeper and one I identify with deeply. It is the communication within the overall community that enriches the design space. Even if some only turn up to kvetch, it still tells a tale. They may be right: viewed from where they sit it may be that nothing makes sense. Indeed, the most fascinating part of 14+ years of writing aTbRef is learning what—in a way I couldn’t guess—is not obvious.

For those looking from a wider view, we see the role of the human in the loop. One day, albeit not today, some software might ‘just’ figure this all for us. Enlightened self interest of work needed doing now tells us to engage.

I think the biggest lacuna in understanding of KM/PKM systems is the role of the human mind. We are so obsessed with the value of our time (to otherwise do … what?) that we don’t engage. All the most interesting Tinderbox use I’ve seen over the years shows engagement by the user. Don’t misread that as ‘lots of code’. Again, as in this week’s meet-up talk, you may not need [function] and don’t worry if you don’t. Use what you need.

From my experience, PKM is not a case of “can’t the computer do it because I’m too lazy to contribute.”


old but true: a fool with a tool is still a fool :wink:
But we are mixing different aspects - very different aspects here. To aim at a dynamic structure (and yes, I wouldn’t bet that I know today what I need tomorrow - I try to organise my knowledge in a way, that allows a restructuring of my persisted associative memory) is not what most tools of today offer first of all. They are still build more like a relational database and not like an ontology with autonomous objects that redefine their relation to each other - based on my input - in a new and sometimes not predictable way.
But the problem arises even earlier: the apps and the processes use data and not knowledge. Data is something I can share with others on a software basis. Knowledge is not shareable without the human behind it. But maybe knowledge isn’t the word I was looking for - I would call it understanding (translation of a German term) - a living entity not a dead piece of text. Something that will adjust it’s meaning if I add new stuff to my system.
The support and the discussion here in the community is about knowledge and it is an outstanding feature of TBX. I learn a lot from other people - most of what I know. But when talking about PKM software I talk about persistence, about getting more out of what I entered into the system. This is an attribute of the community here when we talk about TBX itself - but not when we talk about what I enter into TBX myself as my personal knowledge item. In 1956 people startet to talk about artificial intelligence: „An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves“ (J. McCarthy, M. L. Minsky, N. Rochester, C.E. Shannon. “A Proposal for the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.” (1955): 1, Accessed 01.07.2021, 2021. http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/history/dartmouth/dartmouth.html.)
Still machines are dull like a toaster. The CPUs of our times are fast - but I don’t see anything comparable to the human mind :wink:


This was hilarious, thank you! :slight_smile:

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